From Conman to Security Consultant: The Story of Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale disguised as an airline pilot. | Courtesy of charlestonmag.com

You may not be familiar with the name Frank William Abagnale (ah-Big-Nail) Jr., but if you’ve seen the movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, you have seen a glimpse of his life story. While the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, was embellished for cinematic value, the tale of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s transformation from conman to a leading fraud expert is based on real-life events.

Frank Abagnale Jr. was born in 1948 to Frank and Paulette Abagnale in Bronxville, New York. Frank had what would be considered a good childhood; he had a stable home, with loving and attentive parents. Every night, his father would tell him, “I love you” and kiss him good-night. Frank describes himself as having a daddy in a world of fathers.1 Not the typical upbringing of someone who would land on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list. While most fifteen to twenty year olds are graduating high-school, going off to college or joining the work-force, Frank traveled the globe, committing forgery, check fraud, and eventually serving time in prison.

Frank’s life of crime started when at fifteen Frank committed credit card fraud against his father. Frank Sr. had given his son a credit card to purchase supplies for his car. Frank devised a scheme with the gas station attendant to fraudulently bill Frank Sr. for merchandise in return for cash, which he used to fund his dating life. It was not until Frank Sr. received a bill for several thousand dollars of merchandise that the crime was discovered.2

During Frank’s adolescent years, his parents’ marriage deteriorated, and ultimately they decided to divorce. The divorce was keep secret from the Frank Jr. until the day of the divorce proceeding. Frank was summoned from school to the court house. The judge presiding over the divorce asked sixteen-year-old, Frank Jr. to choose the parent with whom he wanted to live. Unable to choose between his parents, Frank ran away in tears, fleeing to Manhattan, New York.3

Upon settling in New York, Frank got a job where he earned a measly $1.50 per hour, which was minimum wage at the time. Believing his meager wage was the result of his age, Frank alters his driver’s license, changing his birth year from 1948 to 1938. Frank had always appeared older than his age; he was six foot tall and had premature graying of his hair, so he was able to pass for a twenty-something year old with ease.4 Unfulfilled and making just over minimum wage, Frank turned to check fraud to supplement his income. Frank’s early scheme was rudimentary; he would open bank accounts in his own name, overdraw the account and disappear when the bank demanded repayment. Initially, Frank passed checks in the amount of $25-$50.5

Altered check from the Steven Spielberg movie “Catch Me If You Can” | Courtesy of http://www.spielberg-ocr.com/abagnale.html

With little thought of the consequences, Frank devised a plan to pass checks on a much grander scale by posing as a pilot. In his biography, Catch Me if You Can, Frank writes, “Why, I thought, I could walk into any hotel, bank or business in the country and cash a check. Airline pilots are men to be admired and respected. Men to be trusted. Men of means. And you don’t expect an airline pilot to be a local resident. Or a check swindler.”6 In order to execute his plan Frank first needed to look the part. Frank contacted Pan Am Airlines claiming to be a pilot who had lost his uniform. Frank was able to con his way into getting a replacement uniform for a nominal fee, which was billed to the airline. Frank used the uniform to assume the identity of a Pan Am pilot.7 In addition to passing checks in much higher dollar amounts by posing as a pilot, came the perk of being able to fly for free, known as deadheading. While Frank never flew on Pan Am, he did deadhead on other airlines, allowing his check fraud scheme to span the globe.8

Frank Abagnale was a master of deception; he was able to change his identity and persona with ease. Over the course of five years, Frank had impersonated a physician, a lawyer, and a sociology professor.9

“Frank Abagnale as a physician. | Courtesy of reelrundown.comFrank’s impersonation of a doctor was not intentional; he was asked for his occupation in the process of completing a rental application, in which he answered “pediatric doctor.” Unbeknownst to Frank, an actual pediatrician lived in the same complex. Unable to avoid the pediatrician, Frank toured the local hospital, and used its library in order to add legitimacy to his claims. Frank did not perform any actual medical procedure, realizing that doing so could have life-and-death consequences. Frank abandoned that persona and left the area.10

Frank moved on to Louisiana, where he posed as a lawyer. During his time posing as a lawyer, Frank passed the state’s Bar exam. At the time, the state of Louisiana allowed testers three attempts at the exam. Frank used the process of elimination and on his third attempt, successfully passed the Louisiana Bar exam within nine weeks. A remarkable feat considering at the time Frank had only a tenth-grade high school education.11

From 1964 to 1969, Frank assumed many identities. He is alleged to have stolen 2.5 million dollars, and traveled over a million miles as a deadhead for which Frank was landed on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list. Frank was actively pursued by the FBI, state and local law enforcement from the time he was sixteen until his capture at twenty years of age.12

At the age of twenty, Frank found life on the run exhausting and decided to retire to France. Frank settled in Montpellier, the town his parents met in at the end of WWII. While grocery shopping, Frank was recognized by the stewardess ex-girlfriend, who had seen his wanted poster. The ex-girlfriend alerted police of his presence. Frank’s elaborate game of cat and mouse came to an end when he was arrested by Montpellier Police on an Interpol warrant for crimes committed in Sweden.13 At the time of his arrest Frank was wanted in every state in the United States and for extradition in twenty-six other countries. France refused to honor the Interpol warrant, and instead tried Frank for crimes committed in France. After a two-day trial, Frank was found guilty of forgery and sentenced to a year of prison in Perpignan’s House of Arrest.14

Frank served six months of his year-long sentence at the Perpignan Prison. While in prison, Frank encountered horrific conditions. His small cell has no electricity, toilet, or wash basin, and he had only a hole in the floor to relieve himself. Frank entered Perpignan Prison a 198 pounds and left severely malnourished, weighing only 109 pounds.15 At the end of six months, Frank was transferred to a prison in Sweden, to serve the remainder of his sentence. While in Sweden, Italy submitted an extradition request. However, the judge in Sweden instead worked with the FBI to have Frank’s passport revoked, in order to have him deported to the United States.16 Frank Abagnale served five years of his twelve-year sentence. He was released on the condition that he help the FBI investigate fraud and scam artists without pay, to which he agreed. Frank continued to work for the FBI without pay even after fulfilling his sentencing requirement. Frank also repaid the stolen 2.5 million dollars, despite it not” being a term of his parole or probation.

Frank Abagnale in recent years. | Courtesy of biography.com

After his release, Frank approached a bank with an offer to lecture its staff on how to spot tricksters and fraudulent checks. It is this work that Frank finds he has more value serving as a security expert than he had as a criminal. He works today as a security consultant, offering his advice and expertise to banks, law enforcement agencies and others. “More than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations, and law enforcement agencies use his fraud protection programs.” Frank still consults with the FBI, without payment of services or reimbursement of travel expenses.17

It is evident in his storytelling that Frank does not want to be immortalized for the actions of his teenage years, but for the family he has raised since. He credits his wife and three sons as his greatest accomplishment. Frank’s transformation from conman to leading security expert is an inspirational tale of someone who made a mistake, learned from it, and used that knowledge to contribute to building a better society.18

 

  1. Jenna Scafuri, “General Session,” Corrections Today (December 2011): 68-70.
  2. Sandy Lawrence Erdy, “Criminally Entertaining: The Imposter Behind Catch Me If You Can,” Biography, (January 2003): 26.
  3. Frank Abagnale, bioCatch Me If You Can Author Frank W. Abagnale Speaks at Clarkson University,” Clarkson University, 16 July 2013, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY.
  4. Sandy Lawrence Erdy, “Criminally Entertaining: The Imposter Behind Catch Me If You Can,” Biography, (January 2003): 26.
  5. Frank Abagnale, “Catch Me If You Can Author Frank W. Abagnale Speaks at Clarkson University,” Clarkson University, 16 July 2013, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY.
  6. Frank W. Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can (New York: Broadway Books, 1980), 42.
  7. Frank W. Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can (New York: Broadway Books, 1980), 42-44.
  8. Jenna Scafuri, “General Session,” Corrections Today (December 2011): 68-70.
  9. Frank W. Abagnale, The Art of the Steal (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 3.
  10. Frank Abagnale, interviewed by Sarah Montague, BBC Hardtalk, March 15, 2003.
  11. Frank Abagnale, interviewed by Sarah Montague, BBC Hardtalk, March 15, 2003.
  12. Frank Abagnale, “Comments,” September 2002, http://www.abagnale.com/comments.htm
  13. Patrick Lynch, “Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.” History Collection, July 2017, http://historycollection.co/catch-can-real-story-frank-abagnale-jr/
  14. Patrick Lynch, “Catch Me If You Can: The Real Story of Frank Abagnale, Jr.” History Collection, July 2017, http://historycollection.co/catch-can-real-story-frank-abagnale-jr/
  15. Frank Abagnale, interviewed by Sarah Montague, BBC Hardtalk, March 15, 2003.
  16. Olivia Solon, “Frank Abagnale on the Death of the Con Artist and the Rise of Cybercrime,” Wired, February 2017, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/frank-abagnale
  17. Stephanie Hunt, “Bona Fide*,” Charleston Magazine, September 2010, http://charlestonmag.com/features/bona_fide#.
  18. Frank Abagnale, interviewed by Sarah Montague, BBC Hardtalk, March 15, 2003.

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This Post Has 46 Comments

  1. Referencing the film in the beginning really helped me refresh my mind on Frank’s story. Although I had heard about this, I wasn’t really aware of some of the details this article mentioned. I think the minimum wage was crazy to hear about because I didn’t know about that. I found it interesting to hear about his story and what lead him to doing what. Overall this article was really well written and I was intrigued which lead me to clicking on it.

  2. Katherine Watson

    I had seen bits and pieces of the movie “Catch Me if You Can” but had no idea it was based on a real person! For him to have been able to get away with so much ease is astounding. To have gotten away with almost 2.5 million dollars because of all his different personas is mind-blowing, and then just for him to be turned in by his ex-girlfriend in a whole other country, that is too funny. I would do the same if I were her though.

  3. I saw a movie before but I did not know it was a real story, I can not believe that there is a man with such high intelligence, and the ability to represent the roles with high skill, but I wonder what made him deceitful though he was raised in a stable house and loving parents, but the end was Good where he benefited from his intelligence and skill to build a good future

  4. I have seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can” and know that it reflects true events, but I had never taken it upon myself to learn about the man whom the movie is based on. This article definitely helped me in learning about him and what he did. I find it so crazy that Frank Abagnale started forgery at such a young age. He was only 15! And his reason was to get money for his dating life. I also found it shocking that he passed the bar exam with only a tenth grade education. Abagnale truly is an intelligent man. He managed to steal 2.5 million dollars in just five years. I am glad, however, that he repaid that money and that he is putting his knowledge to good use. I thought this article did a good job in telling his story and it flowed nicely. The only mistake I noticed was that at the beginning of one of the paragraphs, there is a caption for a photo, but there is no photo. Other than that, great work!

  5. I think this article is by far one of my favorites that I’ve read thus far. The story was well written and kept me wanting to read more. I think that the amount of detail that the article contains is well weaved into the story and emphasizes it. I think that Frank was a very smart individual that could’ve made the money and traveled without having to do illegal things. I feel that if he would’ve remained with his parents, he could’ve gone to school and live a good life. From reading the article, both of his parents loved him dearly and supported him, so there’s no question in my mind that They would’ve supported him financially with school had he chosen a better route. Frank was clearly smart and bright, I don’t think I know anyone that had ever passed the bar exam without having to go law school, especially by taking a guess and check approach on such an important test. Also, the fact that he was able to deceive many and fully convince them by taking on different personas is truly fascinating to read about. It is apparent however that while he might have enjoyed his life during those few years that he regrets his life choices as he is actively helping the FBI, banks and consulting firms without demanding anything, shows his regret and the fact that he feels sorry. Overall this article was well written and made me feel like I was reading a movie script instead of reading a real-life story.

  6. Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. I have seen bits and pieces of the movie here and there. Frank sounds like he was one hell of a smart guy. I am amazed he passed the bar exam, that is so cool. Especially without a college education. Its really cool. What a life he must have lived for those first 20 years. It seems exciting, but it sounds like he regrets it quite a bit. I also feel really bad for him because of his parents divorce. It was moving to read about that court room scene. I am so glad that Frank has turned his life around and now has a wife and kids

  7. What caught my eye was how low minimum waged was back then. 1.50? that is crazy. However the fact that this guy was able to do this for a long time, is very interesting. I am just glad his life turned for the better and he was able to find that happiness with his family and his new job at actually help people catch people who were like him. I never knew there was movie about this individual, that is the first thing I am going to watch later on. Very good informative article.

  8. Sometimes real life isn’t as interesting as the movies that Hollywood makes based on it. However, this article proves that is not always true. I have seen the movie before and was very impressed at the story but I think I’m even more impressed after reading this truly accurate depiction of his life and seeing the sources for myself. Great article!

  9. Rylie Kieny

    This is a great article because it shows that people truly can change. I started off thinking Frank was just a scummy, no good man, and he was at first but then it became apparent that he wasn’t just some evil mastermind. It is very clear through all of his scams and personas that Frank really was a very intelligent man. It is amazing that he was able to pass the State Bar exam with only a 10th grade high school level education. There are people who do many hours in law school and are still unable to pass this exam while he did it through process of elimination. I think it is great they were able to use his dark past in order to make a bright future for him and other industries.

  10. I remember seeing the movie “Catch me if you can” in a forensic class I took my senior year. Frank Abagnale’s story intrigued me so seeing his name on an article, I had to read it. The article was definitely informative on Abagnale’s life far more than what the movie told. I enjoyed the image after the fifth paragraph because I distinctly remember it from the movie and the image of Abagnale in recent years was helpful because I didn’t know he was alive. Frank Abagnale was a master of deception and, as the article explains, one of the most wanted persons of the FBI, and this article does a fine job at explaining the story of Frank Abagnale.

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